Allen Ginsberg’s 1975 Naropa Institute “History of Poetry” lecture series continues from here
AG: (A) little tiny song by George Peele I’m reading these because I guess half the class doesn’t know these things which, in former days, were considered touchstones of English literary poetry, or , what was the word, you know, standard exquisiteness, exquisities, or something –
“When as the Rie reach to the chin,/ And chopcherrie chopcherrie ripe within,/ Strawberries swimming in the creame,/ And schoole boyes playing in the streame;/ Then O, then O, then O my true love said, / Til that time come againe/ She could not live a maid.” – From an old play called “The Old Wives Tale”. That “Strawberries swimming in the creame” is Shakesperean – “schoole boyes playing in the streame”
Thomas Nashe, who, (William) Burroughs reminded me, wrote the first novel, the first English novel, which, Burroughs was saying, influenced both (Jack) Kerouac, (Louis-Ferdinand) Celine and himself – The Unfortunate Traveller – whose title presents the archetype plot of the picaresque novel. Tom Nash – 1567-1601 – “Song” (“In Time of Pestilence”), which is again interesting in that the pith of Western lyric thought jives very precisely with the essence of Buddhist teaching on the impermanence of phenomena, or the fact that all the constituents of being are transitory.
(Allen sings the entire “Song” (“In Time of Pestilence”) with harmonium accompaniment) – “Adieu farewell earth’s blisse/ This world uncertaine is..”.
It differs from a Buddhist statement somewhat. “Heaven is our heritage,/ Earth but a players stage” – that’s back to “these are players as I foretold you” (or looks forward to it, perhaps). This was probably written before Shakespeare. Yeah. Yeah, because Nash died in 1601, and Shakespeare died 1616, and “The Tempest” probably is in his last ten years or so. So that “Earth’s but a players stage”, (that’s) like that image in Shakespeare. “Mount wee unto the sky” (Mount we down to the bardo, or something). But “I am sick, I must dye”, and, of course, “the Lord” (there’s a Lord here, which is a Christian Lord, of course) but that “Beauty is but a flowre,/ Which wrinckles will devoure/ Brightnesse falls from the ayre,/ Queenes have died, yong and faire,/Dust hath closde Helens eye.” The line I like most of all in that whole thing is
“Brightnesse falls from the ayre”, which I’ve never entirely figured out exactly what he meant, except whatever is bright, takes a fall, or light.
AG: Like glories, light comes down. But “Brightnesse falls from the ayre” (meaning, not only falls, not only descends, like glories, like sunlight, but also what’s bright fails. “Falls” like “fails” in the air. Falls. “Brightnesse falls from the ayre”. There’s always sunset comes too.
I think that’s the most perfect poem i ever read, actually. The sweetest, perfectest statement.
“Beauty is but a flowre,/ Which wrinckles will devoure/ Brightnesse falls from the ayre” – it’s such a funny line that lights up the whole inside of the brain. Also “Queenes have died, yong and faire” – also the sound, the music in that. Because you have “Brightnesse falls from the ayre/ Queenes have died…yong and faire”. So there’s a funny space, a funny little gap, a funny little caesura. As you’re singing, especially. You’d have to say “Queenes have died…yong and faire”
So there’s a slight hesitation there before you get to the “yong and faire”. You could say, “Queenes have died yong and faire” but “Queenes have died…yong and faire”. There’s a stateliness in that measure that comes originally from it being set to music. In other words, he was writing duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah…”Adieu, fare-well earths blisse,/ This world un-cert-aine is”, he wasn’t writing it to a metrical paradigm, he was writing it to music, I think. It says “Song”. We’re trained to read these, originally in Grammar School or High School, as texts, sometimes read from the eye to the page (read by the eye looking at the page). Sometimes spoken aloud, rarely sung (which is why I’m singing them, as songs, because they’re songs really, and you don’t hear the structural beauty of it unless you hear it as a song – just as (as a local reference) you wouldn’t appreciate the curiosities of (Bob) Dylan‘s lyrics unless you knew it as a song also. So a later generation will be reading Dylan (who I respect, I like – his verses are very often brilliant). But later generations, when the electric supply is pulled, will have to deal with either what people can remember, or the texts (if the pages that they’re printed on don’t turn yellow and crumble into dust). So he’ll be stuck, like this, in an anthology, with a thing called “Song” that people’ll be reading with their eye! (which was a point that (Ezra) Pound made).
I’ll refer to Pound a lot in this course, and I hope that you did check him out, The ABC of .. I’ll get to him later on in terms of his own texts, but his theories of poetry, his history of poetics is real interesting, because it’s full of little gists and little sharp ideas and usable notions, concepts, one of which was that the further poetry goes from song and music to speech, and then from speech to eye-page, the more degenerate the lyric form will be, if they keep using that lyric-music form, with rhymes and measured lines, because there won’t be any kind of elastic from the song in there, there won’t be very much variation, there won’t be that”Queenes have died, yong and faire”. There won’t be that subtlety, there’ll just be that “Queenes have died…” See, it’s “Adieu, fare-well earths blisse” – duh-dah, duh-dah, duh-dah, but “Queenes have died…yong and faire” is a totally different measure, even if you were counting it accentually.
Am I making sense? Do you know what I’m talking about when I say “if you’re counting in accentual…”? Do you know about iambics? You might go through that, sooner or later, some day. Why not? Probably most people don’t know it and I got a good book that I can refer to (it has the whole thing down in ten pages). Sooner or later, it might be interesting to actually run through some of the more complicated meters. I want this course to be mainly modern poetics and modern writing, and I’ll get to it, but is it alright to do this? to go back a bit?
…So we’ll go on to Samuel Daniel 1562-1619, “Song” again – I won’t sing it, I’m not that familiar with it. “Are they shadowes..” S-H-A-D-O-W-E-S – nice old spelling – “Are there shadowes that we see?/ And can shadowes pleasure give?/Pleasures onely shadowes bee/ Cast by bodies we conceive/ And are made the things we deeme, / In those figures which they seem./ But these pleasures vanish fast/ Which by shadowes are exprest/ Pleasures are not, if they last/ In their passing , is their best./ Glory is most bright and gay/ In a flash, and so away./ Feed apace then greedy eyes/ On the wonder you behold, / Take it sodaine as it flies/ Though you take it not to hold:/ When your eyes have done their part/ Thought must lengthen it in the hart.”
There’s a funny line of (John) Keats like that – “Joy whose hand is ever at its lips bidding Adieu”. Also (William) Blake echoes a similar vision of the virtues of detachment – “Pleasures are not, if that last;/ In their passing is their best” – “Take it sudden as it flies” – take it sudden as it flies. Blake’s is “he who binds to himself a joy/ Doth the winged life destroy/ He who kisses the joy as it flies/ Lives in eternity’s sun rise”. “Take it sudden as it flies” (they even use the same rhyme!
AG: What I’m doing is just running through little samples of real pretty things.
Student: What was that called?
AG: Samuel Daniel..
Student: What was the name of it
AG: .., was he author of a little song, from a masque, or play, “Tethys Festival” – T-E-T-H-Y=S Festival.
Student: Allen, can you say a little more about what kind of festival that was? what kind of play would that be? and how would that song appear?
AG: I don’t know enough about it. I’ve never heard of the Tethys Festival. Do you know about it? My own model for most of it would be Shakespeare
Anne Waldman: I think there would be more music and dance, music and dance…
AG: Well, with a title like “Tethys Festival”, it may be. It might have been,,
AW: It would probably be a unifying theme,
W.S.Merwin: They had a whole series of (indecipherable)
AG: What was it? Like masques, written by various hands?
WSM: Songs and dancers
AG: Several people writing?
WM: …sometimes informal, sometimes (indecipherable) and sometimes no
AG: Several people writing, contributing different parts
Lewis MacAdams: Ben Jonson wrote a whole slew of the things, one at a time, an they usually had some classical subject. They may have people in very elaborate costumes, masks and wigs and what-not , and sets that changed real fast and looked very magical and had lots of lights, and it was all sung and danced, and there would be some spoken parts, but mostly it would be songs and parades and pageants an what-not, and it didn’t take too long to do, and usually it was done in honor of people’s wedding, or somebody’s birthday, something like that. It was a very special evening, commissioned.
AG: That’s still performed
LM: A private performance. The masque of Ceres that appears in “The Tempest” is an example of one , unless the whole “Tempest”…. The masque, (as) I said, was written, usually, for private performance, at some nobleman’s wedding, or for the king [or queen]’s birthday, something like that, and it was a short play that was mostly sung and danced, and it would have a few speaking parts, like some guy would come out and say, “I am the Queen of Night” etc, and “Here come the stars”. And the stars would all come out and sing poetry of some kind with music. And in the meantime, maybe, they’d be very elaborate stage-sets, designed by a guy, Inigo Jones, that would be changing in the background, and all sorts of lights and fancy costumes and people coming down on wires out of the ceiling, and a very expensive… and the costumes were real – they were real silk and real velvet and real jewels, and so it was an extraordinary expensive trip, and as distinguished from a play that was done on the public stage, which was done on the cheap, or as cheap as they could get away with it.
AG: Who was the Countess of Pembroke, do you remember? Who did she patronize, that is?
WSM: Oh, Samuel Daniel was her chief one
AG: So that song would have been performed..”Tethys Festival”.. would have been performed at her..
WSM: She patronized a great deal, and I think she was related to Sir Philip Sidney
AG: She wrote too?
WSM: Probably it was the other way round. It wasn’t “The Tempest” that influenced them so much as they influenced “The Tempest”. Shakespeare was really trying to draw that strain in there.
AG: No, that was (just) my guess that the songs influenced Shakespeare. Because Nashe, at any rate, was earlier. Nashe was earlier than Shakespeare. That was what I was trying to say.
WSM: But Daniel was later
AG: But died before. The point that I was making was that “The Tempest” was probably the end of Shakespeare’s life, 1616 (and Daniel died in 1601), and so, if “The Tempest” was in the last 15 years of Shakespeare’s life, then Daniel’s poem about this was in a play or on stage before Shakespeare’s,
Anne Waldman: It’s also in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“
AG: Yeah, the masque in “A Midsummer Night;s Dream”. These are all playwrights, and these songs are probably all from plays, anyway. All of them.
Student: Do you think the poet ever appeared on stage to do these numbers?
AG: Well, Shakespeare was an actor, but I don’t know if he ever acted much on his own.
WSM: That was in the popular.. Daniel was very…
AG: Would Daniel appear?
WSM: No, I don’t think he ever did. [to Lewis Macadams] Is that true?
LM: I don’t think so. Usually the people who acted.. quite often the people who acted in the masques were various court noblemen. They took the parts of all sorts of ladies and gentlemen of the court. So it was very high-class.
AG: Lewis Macadams, poet, who I think will be reading (here) in two weeks.
AW: Yeah, No, three, actually.
AG: Three. Lewis is here in town all summer too, if you want more poets to get onto. As Bill Merwin is. And Gregory Corso will probably hang around (he just got an apartment, so he’s available). He’ll be here helping, He was staying with me before, but he’s got a place of his own now, so he’ll probably stay here all summer and fix up a book of his. So if anybody wants to haunt him, or help him (and I think he could probably use someone with wheels to be a friend, someone who could take him around a little bit, drive him around, and look him up), if anyone wants to learn Gregory’s condensation and sharpness, it’s worth it. You can find out where he is from me, or if anybody wants to be his slave…
AW: Don’t fall for it!
AG: ..or friend
AW: Don’t let the ladies fall for him
AG: Oh well, he’s seriously in love with his lady…